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Faith Compression

October 20, 2002

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

by Tony Grant



Do you play with Barbie dolls much? This is not a question for the men of the church. Not long ago, elementary-school girls would respond with a resounding "Yes!" But these days, if you expect an affirmative answer from that age group, you are about a generation behind the times. When a 9-year-old named Andrea was recently polled about playing with Barbies, she replied, "Not really," wrinkling her nose and rolling her eyes, projecting deep disdain. She was standing at a music rack at a mall, where she had found a Backstreet Boys album on sale.

Barbie is "really more for 6 and under," explained this little girl, as she flipped through the pop music of Aaron Carter and Britney Spears. Andreas' two younger siblings were right there with her, begging their mom for CDs. Does this sound familiar? Does your family have some headless Barbies lying abandoned in the bottom of the family toy closet? Are you moms feeling puzzled by your daughter's lack of reverence for your favorite childhood doll?

According to recent studies, American kids are abandoning not just Barbie, but most other traditional toys, at ever-younger ages. It used to be that girls in Andrea's age range, 6 to 10, were the prime market for Barbie and other dress-up dolls. But in 2002, Barbie is really big only with 3-to-5-year-olds. After that, poor Barbie is considered babyish.

There is a name for this phenomenon: Age Compression. That is what sociologists call it. People in the toy business call it KGOY--"kids getting older younger" In particular, that group of kids called the tweens—ages eight to twelve—is turning to flashier forms of entertainment, to the "three m's": movies, music and the microchip—the microchip being computers and gameplaying devices.

Now we may not care about the toy market, but Age Compression also concerns us. According to some parents, psychiatrists and child advocates, Age Compression hurts children. These folks worry that this cultural shift is robbing kids of their childhood.

Kathleen McDonnell, in her book, Honey We Lost the Kids (see, argues that childhood is not what it used to be. She recalls how as a ten-year-old, she and her friends would flip furiously through a dictionary looking for dirty words to discover their meaning. Now, all you need is to listen to a CD of Eminem or watch an episode of "Friends." Kids today are staying inside to play Resident Evil and Mortal Combat instead of playing Cowboys and Indians outside. Third-and-fourth-graders now know more about sex than I did in Junior High School. What happened? The "three m's" happened--movies, music and the microchip.

Faith Compression

Let us apply Age Compression, or KGOY, to spiritual things. We live in an age of shrinking faith. According to pollster George Barna, church attendance among women is dropping. Since 1991, the number has gone down 22 percent. Likewise, the number of female church volunteers has declined by 21 percent. Overall, our nation's church attendance is on a downward slope, with 60 percent of Americans reporting that they attended services on a monthly basis in 1991, dropping to 55 percent in 1998.

The problem is especially acute among the young. Think of the children who go to Sunday school until they join the church, and then never show up for Christian education again. Or the young men and women who grow up attending services with their families, but then become invisible - reappearing only at Christmas and Easter. According to sociologist Dean Hoge of Catholic University, 75 percent of Presbyterians drop out of active church membership after confirmation. Seventy-five percent of young people drop out of church. That is a stunning statistic. You have wonder what went wrong.

Perhaps teenagers today consider Sunday School to be "babyish." Perhaps the growth of the wage-earning work force has drained the old church volunteer pool dry. It could be that some adults have come to think of church as being useful at an earlier age, but now no longer relevant. Parents inadvertently teach this lesson. They say that they want to go to church for their kids. I have heard that often. "I joined that church because I thought it would be good for the kids"—which implies that church is unimportant for adults, and the kids pick that up. And when they become adults, they apply the lesson—they do not go to church. We are experiencing faith compression that is similar to the age compression that is tormenting our toy makers.

Role Models

But this was not a problem in the church in first century Thessalonica. Paul, according to his letter to that church, gave thanks to God for all of the Thessalonians, remembering before God their "work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope" (1:2-3).

So, what was their secret? How did they grow beyond a babyish faith and become active, adult servants of a living God? For one thing, they had good role models. They had Paul. In v5 Paul says to them, You remember "what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake."

Let me give you a negative example of a role model. This is from an article by Larry Davies, titled "New car rudeness: An object lesson."

The bright red finish and the cardboard license plates were clear indicators that the car in the restaurant parking lot was new. The owner must have panicked when he saw me park right beside his new toy. Quickly he ran out, gave me a dirty look, then moved his car and parked it again at an odd angle, blocking three parking places.

The plot thickens at this point because the manager of the restaurant quietly asked the man to park his car correctly. He arrogantly replied: "I don't want some jerk hitting my brand-new car. Besides, your food is awful." (Colorful language edited.) The manager smiled and offered to refund his money. The man continued his cursing, snatched the refund and left in a huff.

Unfortunately, the rude guy was accompanied by three young teenagers who were watching and giggling. When told to leave, they crammed the rest of the "awful" food in their mouths while laughing about the way their father tough-talked a restaurant manager and received a free meal.

Later the manager commented: "I don't get upset when people are rude to me. It's my job to deal with all kinds of customers. As a grandfather, however, I cringe to think what lesson the children received from their father's intimidation tactics. They will likely learn to behave like their father."

[Larry Davies, "New car rudeness: An object lesson," Sowing Seeds of Faith, April 3, 2002,]

Now I have to contrast that bad role model with a good role model.

All that Jim Morris was trying to do was motivate a bunch of gum-chewing, prom date-chasing adolescents to give it their all. In the end, they made sure he gave his all. It is a fairy tale story that did not come from Hollywood, but ended up in Hollywood. Jim Morris is the high school baseball coach and teacher from Texas who, at the not-so-tender age of 35, fulfilled his lifelong dream of pitching in the Major Leagues.

His students said, "We know you still want to play baseball - how can you tell us to reach for our dreams when you are not willing to reach for your dreams?" Put up or shut up. That is what they said. Jim Morris did. Now there is a major motion picture about him called The Rookie. Jim Morris and his students mentored each other. His students challenged him to be a role model, and he responded to that challenge.

Role Models Become Role Models

Fortunately for the Thessalonians, they had some good role models, but role modelling did not end with Paul and Silvanus and Timothy. Paul reports, in vv6-7, that the Thessalonians "became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia" (vv. 6-7). They became role models themselves. They became home missionaries and witnesses and examples to their whole area.

Paul's letter to the Thessalonians came at a time when that faith community needed a word of encouragement. The Thessalonians are practicing their faith in a city of considerable cultural, political and economic importance - the capital of the province of Macedonia and a seat of Roman administration, a port city located on the Via Egnetia, a major Roman highway.

The religious life in Thessalonica was varied. The Greek god Dionysus was prominent, as were the Egyptian deities Isis, Osiris and Serapis, as well as the Phrygian god Cabirus. There was no lack of options for the religiously inclined of the city, and so many Thessalonians probably thought, why not welcome another one--the worship of Jesus Christ as promoted by these three missionaries?

But there was something different about this religion, and those who were involved seemed different. No longer were their values, outlook on life or religious interests influenced by the surrounding community. These new believers saw themselves as subjects of God's kingdom, not Rome's; they pledged allegiance to Jesus, not to Augustus. Little wonder that some were alarmed by their behavior. Support for Jesus meant less support for Rome. All this caused conflict between believers and other Thessalonians.

This new religion also called for an exclusive claim on the lives of believers. Jesus people were only Jesus people. This was an odd notion to most Greeks. Civic life in the Hellenistic world was defined, in part, by memberships in several religion. A pagan might worship at the altar of Isis today and of Dionysus tomorrow, and see no problem with that. But Christians did not do that. They worshipped Christ alone—which was a surprise and shock to their neighbors.

In his letter to the Thessalonians, Paul addresses two issues: the hostility they have experienced from their neighbors as a result of their following Christ alone, and a concern for stability. Given the hostility they experienced, it would be easy for the Thessalonians to abandon their newfound belief, but Paul calls them to stay the course, encourages them to remain committed, despite the difficulty they have experienced.

The recipients of the letter are simply referred to as "the church of the Thessalonians." Today, we hear "church" and often think "building," but in terms of this letter, the Greek "ekklesia" is better understood as "gathering." Paul is writing to a group that has gathered to share their conviction in the gospel of Jesus Christ. V1 has the phrase: "In God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ." This phrase reveals much about the relationship between the writers and receivers of this letter. Whatever Paul, Timothy, and Silvanus began, and whatever the Thessalonians have continued, none of it is understood apart from the presence of God and Jesus Christ.

The "Faith," "hope" and "love" that we read of in v 3 reminds us of 1 Corinthians 13. Here, though, Paul adds to what he has said about those three things. Paul gives thanks for their faith at work, their love as labor and their hope as what keeps them going. Paul sees these three virtues as God's gifts operating in their lives, as he remembers how they first responded to the gospel and how they live for Christ in the face of hardship and distress.

Role Models Now

Thus we can say of the Thessalonians that they have followed mature Christian role models, and gone on to become role models themselves. And, that is a lesson to us. Role modeling is every bit as essential now as it was then. We are not going to see strong Christian commitment among our young people unless they see it in us. Young people need mentors. By that I mean they need to see Christ in the older, spiritually mature members of the church. We seldom become what we hear people say we ought to become. We often become what we see people around us becoming. That is not always true, but it is mostly true—which is why older Christians must be role models for younger Christians. Not that older Christians need to be perfect people. We simply need to demonstrate in our lives that faith is an ongoing process. When it comes to Christ, we never arrive in this life. We are always students. Faith expansion is not finished at age thirteen, the age at which most young people join the church and the age at which Jewish bar mitzvahs tend to occur--if anything, it is only beginning.

From the Jewish perspective, Rabbi Philip Pohl of Olney, Maryland, has offered a suggestion for lifelong faith development. Beginning with the bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah performed for Jewish boys and girls at age 13, he suggests that a similar celebration be held at 13-year intervals throughout all of life: Not just at age 13, but at ages 26, 39, 52 and 65. A renewal of faith, every 13 years. Think of the opportunities for spiritual growth. With the help of mature role models, our members could be reconfirmed as they start their careers at age 26, as they hit their midlife crises at 39, as they experience the empty nest at 52, and as they move into retirement at 65. Each stage brings new opportunities for faithful living, as well as for sharing in the ministry of the congregation. This would eliminate the current fiction that we are somehow equipped at age thirteen to deal with the many difficult issues of life. It would also bring us closer to the example of the early church, in which the Thessalonians became first imitators then examples.

Would a typical 21st-century American congregation support such a system? It's hard to say. Most people tend to avoid adult Christian education, and they put little pressure on their children to continue Sunday School after they become church members. But Rabbi Pohl says that there is precedent for a mature reaffirmation of commitment, at least in the Jewish community. If a man lives to age 83--the biblical life expectancy of 70 years, plus an additional 13--he is given the opportunity to re-enact his bar mitzvah. This celebration is a powerful expression of commitment to faithful living--a testimony that faith can expand and new life can be found, even in old age. Chances are, in most congregations some adults would like to reaffirm their faith: Sociologist Dean Hoge reports that 49 percent of Presbyterians who drop out return to church by age 37.

We need to keep in mind that faith is caught, not taught. Faith is passed on only by coming into contact with people who believe. That's why we all require the role modeling of people like Paul, Silvanus, Timothy and the Thessalonians, as well as the examples of countless saints that we encounter over the course of our lifetimes. At no stage in life are any of us exempt from the necessity of growing and maturing in our faith, and at no stage in life do we not need ongoing support and mentoring. At the same time, the opportunity always exists for us to be a good example to someone coming along behind us.

A gospel is not just for Sunday-school kids, you see, not designed primarily for 3-to-5-year-olds. There is nothing babyish about it. Faith needs to expand through all of life, long after we have said bye-bye to Barbie. Amen.


Shen, Fern. "Toys? But I'm 10 now!" The Washington Post, February 17, 2002, H1.



If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

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